About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

BEAMS, BEAMS AND MORE BEAMS

A TERRIBLE FAD THAT HAS BECOME THE NORM

     This is an open letter to owners of old houses and prospective owners of old houses.  This post is about BEAMS!

     Every homeowner, especially new homeowners, take much pride in their new home ownership.  At least that is my observation.  Certainly all want to beautify their houses and in doing so express their taste as they make their new house their home reflecting their interests and style.  I can't believe that they would deliberately damage the biggest investment of their life.  They wouldn't knowingly choose to decrease its monetary value, beauty or integrity by hurting the house would they?

     So why do so many do damage to their new house anyway?

Crude brown beams in an otherwise nice room.
     It has to be because they don't know any better and are jumping on a destructive band wagon.  No one has cautioned them and so they follow so many other owners of antique houses and do as they do, like sheep.  They assume that what they are doing is restoration; clueless that they are making grave and irreversible mistakes.  Removing any of the original fabric of the house is a mistake.

     For forty years people have said to me, "Pru.  You have to see this house!  It is all restored.  You're going to love it.  The owners have exposed the beams and...."  "Stop right there", I want to scream at them.  "I don't want to see another house with exposed beams...ever!"  (unless it's first period, of course)

     From the earliest building dates in the 17th century the houses in the New World were post medieval.  That doesn't mean crude.  Early settlers brought their building style with them from England.

     From the mid 1600s until the 1720s, approximately, the time at which the earliest houses appeared, they were built with very heavy framing and this framing was exposed. This is called the "First Period" architecturally speaking.  These houses were not rough.  There were no adz marks showing.  All the edges of the beams, especially the summer beams were dressed with chamfers. There were no sharp edges.  A 17th century house would have dramatically large beams dressed with fine and bold chamfers. We call these decorated frames.

This photo clearly shows the decorated edge, (chamfer) on the summer beam.  This is a first period room
and is of the period when the framing of the house with its chamfers was meant to be seen.  After this period
the framing members of the house were carefully hidden away and not meant to be seen by human eyes.  This is
a room from Ipswich, MA removed to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Ipswich has the largest collection
of early houses.

     That really concludes the story of correctly exposed beams in America and it is only circa 1725! So unless your house is about 300 or more  years old don't even imagine that it ever has had exposed beams and don't go looking for them!  Perhaps some did; there are always exceptions but don't count on it.

     There are not too many houses remaining that were built before 1725.  That means there should not be too many appropriately exposed beams.  Period!  Where I live in Gloucester, MA, a town settled in 1623, there are only about ten houses remaining from the first period and perhaps as few as two date to the 17th century.

     In the first period when exposed beams were legitimate they were white washed, not left brown.  So beamed ceilings should be a rare feature.  Right?  And they should be whitewashed

      Moving into the second architectural period from let's say from about 1725-1730 to the 1790s, depending somewhat on where you live, many, many houses were built.  If there were protruding framing posts in the corners or a summer beam above, all were covered (boxed)  with smooth boards with beaded edges.  These boxes were painted the same color as the rest of the woodwork in the room. Plaster covered the floor joists above.

     After 1725 (as well as before) refinement was what builders and home owners were striving for.  Practically all woodwork was painted or would be as soon as finances, time or choices were arranged.  There are occasional exceptions  but we are talking about the norm.

   Somewhere along the way the error of exposing rough hewn beams with adz marks and rough joists became synonymous with restoration.  Nothing could be further from the truth. It is wrong, wrong, wrong

Lovely room but why the rough beams?
 


     The imagined necessity of exposing ugly brown overhead has caught on and taken off much like the destructive movement to get rid of your old wood window sash in order to buy cheap replacement windows that cost a lot of money and have to be replaced again in twenty to thirty years. Homeowners have fallen hook, line and sinker for these destructive fads.  When I see brown splintery beams and the underside of the second floor floorboards I want to cover my eyes.  It is painful to look at a destroyed ceiling knowing the plaster has been hauled off in the dumpster.

     Whether on the Internet or in Realtor ads it is obvious that a smooth plaster ceiling is an endangered species.This damage is evident when you see the photos of otherwise nice old houses restored with love by a caring owner with a lot of hard work and a lot of money who has not done their homework.

A nice old house from the 1830 until they did this.   Ugly ceiling
unpainted mantel, stripped and urethaned floor,  and bricks
surrounding the firebox that should have been parged.
Unfortunately rooms that look like this are everywhere and they
should not be considered restored

 Save the integrity of your house and do your pocketbooks a favor.  The worst plaster ceilings can be saved.

    If you live in an antique house and still have plaster ceilings, for Heaven's sake, leave those plaster ceilings alone!  Rough beams belong in the barn.

This concludes the rant that has been percolating in my mind for some time.  You will all probably think of exceptions, I can think of some myself, but don't dwell on them.  They are few and far between.





Thanks for reading and thanks for putting up with my tirade.  Everywhere I look lately at what I think should be a lovely old house I am disappointed when I find that the house has already fallen prey to the ceiling wreckers.

Pru


11 comments:

  1. Hello Prudence, Here in Ohio, basically all beams in houses are examples of "phony-colonial," on a par with aluminum eagles, but that never stops people. It would be interesting to examine the history of the desirability of exposed beams, including Colonial kitchens which were part of every museum house, "quaint" inns and tearooms, and Hollywood movies.

    Even the Victorian period has its equivalent nightmare--exposed brick!
    --Jim

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  2. This is a lovely blog! I love your knowledge of architecture and your passion for history. As for those beams... I'm glad to see that this irks someone other than me. But, what really, really makes me angry is when someone desecrates a period home by tearing down walls for the dreaded open concept look.

    Best,
    Scott

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    1. I agree with your 100% on the open concept and the accompanying loss of original fabric.

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  3. This post is very informative. Thanks so much for writing it. People who own old houses should do serious research before "restoring" anything. The worst thing I have ever heard of was down the street from us, when someone bought a two-story log house and faced it with faux stone. A newspaper article lauded it as "restored log house." Now, who could say that and who would publish it? Crazy!

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    1. The subject of beams is very controversial. People love them! There was a big response to my blog but not everyone agrees with me. Just the opposite!

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    2. Pity. Then those who don't agree ought to live in a new house designed to their liking. To randomly disregard known history of what and what was not exposed in houses post first period is an affront to the house, and those who know what was.

      People are funny animals. Even when faced with fact, they can justify nearly anything.

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  4. Thanks for putting it out there for all the "doubting Thomases" to learn from. You write beautifully.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. Beams are a controversial subject. Yesterday I heard from a lady living in an 1808 Federal house. She proudly told me that all the beams had been painted white and that they have taken they all back to the original brown. What could I say?

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    2. That was nearly painful to read. Ignorance appears to revel in its own misinformation as evidenced by your 1808 Federal woman.

      SMH

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  5. Great blog. A few thoughts in the exposed beam vs cased in structure with plaster look.

    We need to account for the fact that for many original owners, they were happy ~just~ to have a home and roof over their head. Many first period and second period houses were not that big; expanded over time to become the houses we see today. The expense of a new home, especially those built in the first period, was extremely high. Form usually follows function so for many of these houses, the exposed beams were in fact the original appearance until the family had the money to case in the joists above. We often forget that the sheer labor and/or involved costs in an age without mortgages meant that people updated when they had the saved up 'cash' or a windfall after several seasons of profits from farm or business.

    Further, we often forget that reducing a huge tree to squared lumber or planks was far more impressive than it is today with our lumber yards at hardware stores. A cut or hewn or planed piece of wood was 'flat' and beyond the knowledge, let alone skills of most people. What is rough to us or imperfect to us--was fine back then. I restore antiques and old houses...we apply too many modern aesthetics to history. Its hard not to sometimes.

    Even planing or dressing the rough cut of lumber was a skilled labor of additional expense. Did you have the means to afford it? Accounts from the 17th and 18th century suggest this was not cheap.

    I have been in numerous first and second period houses that clearly show plastered or boxed in framework long after their original creation. In one house, built about 1698-1710, it was clear that for many years, the cooking hall was left unboxed/plastered because we could see smoke stains. I have also found lathe of simple pine on the ceilings of these houses with a mix of late 18th/early 19th century nails along with hand forged ones (likely purchased from a local smith when the good "modern" nails ran out) In other words we found good evidence the joists were covered toward the latter 18th century.

    Walls and ceilings are two different things too. Plastering ceilings in ANY room with a fireplace means that they will darken very quickly with that smoke. I lived in a 2000 square foot house heated by fireplace and those white plaster walls were *impossible* to keep clean and cleaning products nor stain resistant paints were no where near as advanced as today. If you had servants to scrub walls and ceilings, perhaps--most folks didnt. With center chimney houses, the conundrum is raised--how often does that newly 'white' ceiling have to be cleaned from the inevitable smoke? (also consider air flow/draft differences of center chimney vs end chimney) Unless we have specific dates for the plaster work, I have proposed many of these joists and summer beams were likely plastered during the latter 18th century with the advent of the wood burning stove and oven. This invention allowed for heat to enter the room while equally minimizing smoke.

    Additionally, the type of nails can also help us date the plaster work by studying the lath wood and nail shapes. But we must also be careful because any local town would have a smith that could crank out a few thousand lath nails in a hand forged fashion, faster and cheaper than buying early machine cut nails---so this approach is not a perfect science.

    While I once shared the opinion that many more exposed summers and joists should be re-boxed in-- significant research, social and economic realities that we tend to forget, as well as the realities of life without modern furnaces and 'clean' heat are sometimes overlooked. I suspect more of these ceilings were indeed more open until the latter 18th and 19th centuries. A number of accounts in the 17th and 18th century also speak of being able to listen and see up through the floors--something not possible with plastered/boxed in ceilings.

    cheers and Happy New Year
    Drew
    (CheasapeakeArtistry.com)

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    1. Thank you, Drew, for your thoughtful and informative comments. I pretty much agree with you. The 1759 red house at the top of the blog is an example. During the restoration it became obvious that the kitchen of the center chimney house was not originally plastered. It had been whitewashed and was a mess especially in front of the almost ten foot cooking fireplace. The front entry likewise had not been plastered originally but had been whitewashed. All else was plastered on heavy split laths.

      Regional differences and customs also have to be taken into account.

      I hope you keep reading and appreciate you comments.

      Happy New Year to you, too!

      Pru

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